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Football | Europa League

Blues keep form as marathon end nears



Chelsea will be looking to keep their hopes alive of their marathon season ending with a trophy as Rafael Benitez's men host FC Basle in their Europa League semifinal second leg clash at Stamford Bridge on Thursday.

The English Premier League outfit lead 2-1 from last week's semifinal, first leg in Switzerland and need only avoid defeat in west London to be assured of a place in the May 15 final in Amsterdam.

But the games are coming thick and fast for the Pensioners who must be running on fumes having already played an incredible 63 times this season.

No other team has played in as many competitions as Chelsea, with one off matches such as the English Community Shield and European Super Cup added to the the World Club Championship, Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup, as well as their Premier League bread and butter, making up an epic campaign.

If they get past Basle, they'll finish the season on 69 matches.

Benitez has done his best to keep things fresh by rotating certain players, yet six of his squad have made at least 55 appearances, and that's not including internationals.

While outside observers may have been baffled by Benitez's rotation policy which has included such club stalwarts as Frank Lampard and John Terry, no-one could deny that Chelsea's players have had a most demanding schedule.

In the last month they played 10 times, an average of a game every three days.

While they remain favourites to defeat the Swiss side, who have already progressed further in European competition than ever before, Chelsea must surely be feeling the effects of their gruelling programme.

And they have made no secret of the fact that the Europa League is secondary to their prime objective of finishing in the Premier League's top four and qualifying for the Champions League next season.

In the six days following the visit of Basle, Chelsea must travel to Manchester United and then host Tottenham Hotspur in two crucial league fixtures that could determine their Champions League qualification.

It means they could be forgiven for keeping more than just one eye on those fixtures when Basle are in town.

On Sunday they looked comfortable in beating Swansea 2-0 at home, although Lampard was quick to point out that result was just a means to an end.

"What's more important is for the club to qualify for next season's Champions League, and we've also got a Europa League final to try to get to and win," he told the club's website chelseafc.com.

"If we can keep our rhythm with the way we're playing and stay positive, the big games that are coming we need to try and win.

"If we don't it will go to the wire, but I believe we've got the strong-minded players to go and do it."

While Chelsea may be feeling the pressure, Basle are merely enjoying the ride, according to goalkeeper Yann Sommer.

"Next to trying to win the domestic league title again, the Europa League is like a dessert for us, which we just wanted to enjoy all the way through," he told uefa.com.

Whoever gets to the final it will be their first time, just as is the case for the two sides competing in the other semifinal, Fenerbahce and Benfica.

It means there is sure to be a new name on the Europa League trophy this season.

Not that all the players are virgins to this competition.

Benfica's attacking midfielder Eduardo Salvio has already won the Europa League twice before with Atletico Madrid.

But if he is to make it a hat-trick, the Portuguese league leaders must overcome a 1-0 deficit from last week's first leg in Istanbul when they host the Turks at Lisbon's Estadio da Luz.

Fixtures

At Lisbon
Benfica (POR) v Fenerbahce (TUR)
Fenerbahce lead 1-0

At London
Chelsea (ENG) v FC Basel (SUI)
Chelsea lead 2-1

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